Rambling ...

I'm an Irish Girl, A Dubliner, with the 'Gift of the Gab' ... I like to talk & to tell you things. In Celtic times news, views and comment were carried from place to place by wandering Seanachaí ~ Storytellers ~ who relied on their host's hospitality and appreciation. I will need that from you too, as I venture to share Politics, Poetry, Laughter, Love, Life & everything in-between ... from Bog to Blog!!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Pondering Politics & Polygamy !!

Monday. Movie Musing .... sort of!!  I did that last Monday too.  Maybe I'll make it a regular Movie Review for Monday.   Anyways ....

When I first watched  'The Unbearable Lightness of Being',  I was dating an 'artist' who had read and loved the book, & wanted me to as well. There were several reasons behind his request, not all of which I'll mention here. My Mom is Czech ..... the setting for this story, which occurs at the same time as the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. I couldn't involve myself in reading the book at that point, as I was working towards my MA, so I rented the movie instead. I loved it then and I love it now, but, at this point in time, I can compare it to the novel which I re-read for a third time recently .... it resonates relevance in my real life. 
In the title of Philip Kaufman's Movie 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being',  the crucial word is "unbearable."  The film tells the story of a surgeon, Tomas (Daniel Day Lewis) ,  who attempts to float above the mundane world of personal responsibility and commitment to practice a sex life that has no traffic with the heart, to escape untouched from the world of sensual pleasure while retaining his privacy and his manliness.  He is trapped between his platonic and semi-erotic love of Teresa (Juliette Binoche), a photographer & his waif-like wife, and an erotic and semi-platonic love of Sabina (Lena Olin),  a buxom painter and his mistress. Teresa is haunted by terrible nightmares and suicidal urges brought on by a love of Tomas clashing with a hatred of his 'lightness' or the ability to view sex as entertainment and not commitment. Sabina, on the other hand, is having to deal with her very first tinges of jealousy as the only man she may have ever truly loved is now obviously in love with another woman. How can making love not include Love??? By the end of the story, this freedom has become too great a load for Tomas to bear.  Polygamy has a Price ....

The film is based on the novel by the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, whose philosophical works all seem to consider eroticism with a certain wistfulness, as if to say that while his characters were making love they were sometimes distracted from the essentially tragic nature of their existence. That is the case here. Kaufman, whose previous films have included "The Right Stuff" and a remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," ~ which I also recently watched ~ had never done anything like this before, but his experiment is a success. He has made a movie in which reality is asked to coexist with a world of pure sensuality, and almost, for the perfect moments his picture plays, seems to agree!!

Tereza and Tomas, Tomas and Sabina, Sabina and Franz, Franz and Marie-Claude ~ four people, four relationships which Kundera describes as the Quartet. Milan Kundera's masterful novel, tells the interlocking stories of these four relationships, with a primary focus on Tomas, a man torn between his love for Tereza, his wife, and his "erotic adventures," particularly his long-time affair with the internationally noted painter, Sabina. The world of Kundera's novel is one in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and fortuitous events. It is a world in which, because everything occurs only once and then disappears into the past, existence seems to lose its substance and weight. Coping with both the consequences of their own actions and desires and the intruding demands of society and the state, Kundera's characters struggle to construct lives of individual value and lasting meaning.

A novel of ideas, a provocative look at the ways in which history impinges on individual lives, and a meditation on personal identity,
The Unbearable Lightness of Being examines the imperfect possibilities of love and the ways in which free choice and necessity shape our lives. "What then shall we choose?" Kundera asks at the beginning of his novel. "Weight or lightness?" This international bestseller is his attempt to answer that question. And the answer is hinted at in the novel's final scene, in which Tomas and Tereza find themselves in a small country hotel after a rare evening of dancing. When Tomas turns on the light in their room, "a large nocturnal butterfly" rises from the bedside lamp and circles the room in which they are alone with their happiness and their sadness. Challenging Friedrich Nietzsches concept of eternal recurrence, the story’s thematic meditations posit the alternative .... that each person has only one life to live, and that which occurs in life occurs only once and never again ~ thus the “lightness” of being. In contrast, the concept of eternal recurrence imposes a “heaviness” on our lives and on the decisions we make (to borrow from Nietzsche's metaphor, it gives them "weight").

In 1988, Philip Kaufman's American-made film adaptation of the novel was released. However, Kundera hated it and said the movie did not correspond well to the book. Since then he hasn't allowed any other adaptations of his works. However it is often wrong to look for the novel in the movie and vice-versa for they are two different disciplines. Very different media & means of expression. Even though the film is overtly erotic in tone, there is very little explicit sex in the film. There’s plenty of nudity & director Kaufman extracts maximum sensual mileage out of the power of suggestion. The key scene, in which Tereza, seeking to expand her portfolio, shoots nude photographs of Sabina, is an almost wordless ballet of role reversal and subtle seduction. Kaufman also does a superb job of contrasting Prague before the crackdown, colourful and vibrant, and afterwards, grey and rotting. Tomas faces one of his former fellow reformers across a desk as the other man almost apologetically acts as communist stooge, enticing him with working as a surgeon again if he just signs a propaganda document condemning the reform movement. Ultimately, Tomas and Tereza reclaim their freedom by forsaking the city (and any hope of their former lives) and going to live with the farmer on whom Tomas had operated at the beginning of the film. Kaufman and Kundera seem to make the point that real happiness and freedom are independent of politics and material success. For Tomas and Tereza, at least, it seems to be true.

The novel is set against the background of the “Prague Spring” of 1968 when Alexander Dubcek promised communism with a human face and the soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. When demanding voices became louder and could not longer be suppressed, political changes came to pass. The post of First Party Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was given to a man named Alexander Dubcek in the year of 1968. Alexander Dubcek followed the voice and the will of his people, and started to reform the political and administrative structure of the country. He became loved and renowned, threatening to spread this process of liberation to other socialist countries. If "national" communism was allowed in one satellite, there was a risk that there would be a chain-reaction throughout the rest of Eastern Europe.

After the military intervention on the night of August 20 when 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops invaded, a reversal of the reform policy was carried out It was called the "process of normalization". Foreign troops remained on Czechoslovak soil until the situation had stabilised. They were the "help" provided by the Soviet Union in the fight against counter-revolutionary forces. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was forced to suppress all moves made towards democracy. But it finally had to surrender on December 9, 1989, in a revolution later called .... "The Velvet revolution".

The political end of the communist era came on November 17, 1989. Demonstrators, mostly students and intellectuals, were brutally attacked by police. This angered other social groups in society and the number of demonstrators grew from 20, 000 to 200, 000.  The human rights organisation, Charter 77, founded 1977 with the help of Vaclav Havel, formed a large organisation, named Civic Forum. Jakes and his group agreed to hold talks with the leader of Civic Forum, Vaclav Havel. The communists in power resigned and were replaced by other communists, which made the demonstrations continue. Three days later, a man from the past, that had been mocked and suppressed, raised his voice for the first time in 21 years. His name was Alexander Dubcek and he was the symbol of freedom and sovereignty for the Czechoslovak people. He expressed solidarity with his people that were once again fighting for their rights.

A couple of days later a coalition government seized the power, with the communists in minority. Vaclav Havel, one of the leading characters of the human rights organisation and the protests 1989, was elected President. He was the first non-communist President in 40 years. After years of tyranny, terror and totalitarianism, the communist era had been ended without a single loss of life ~ so smooth that it was called "the Velvet Revolution". This is where the book and the movie, a perfect joined atom before, begin their fission. In the book, a major point was a philosophical protest to the occupation of Czechoslovakia, to the point where the book devotes some one hundred pages entirely on this subject. In the movie, it is a subtext and a backdrop. The few times that it does appear, it does as cameo.

The scenes in the movie are shot in Prague, a spa town outside Prague and in Geneva. Matička Praha ~ 'little mother Prague' ~ was largely undamaged by WWII, and the cityscape is stunning. Its compact medieval centre remains an evocative maze of cobbled lanes, ancient courtyards, dark passages and churches beyond number, all watched over by an 1100-year-old castle. Kidnapped by communism for 40 years, Prague has become one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations and is undoubtedly the most magical and alluring of all European capitals. The cinematography in the film captures the allure of Prague well and the contrast between the magnificence of this capital of Bohemia and the oppressed lives of the inhabitants under communism. I've visited my Mother's homeland in 1998 & the people were clutching their new found freedoms with a vengeance, a talented proud people in this the capital of Mittel Europa and the only democracy in eastern Europe pre-war whose people found themselves cruelly betrayed in the aftermath of World War II.

On my last morning in Prague we had arranged with our driver to go to the Petrin Hill to take in the vista of this inspiring city; Hradčany, the castle district, on a hill above the west bank; Malá Strana, the 13th-century 'Little Quarter', between the river and castle; Staré Mêsto, the gothic 'Old Town' on the Vltava's east bank; adjacent Josefov, the former Jewish ghetto; and Nové Mêsto or 'New Town,' (new in the 14th century), to the south and east of Staré Mêsto and straddling through it all the Vltava River, the Czech Republic's longest river. It was here Tereza, in the novel, climbs the grassy Petrin Hill, Kundera wrote, “On her way up, she paused several times to look back: below her she saw the towers and bridges, the saints were shaking their fists and lifting their stone eyes to the clouds. It was the most beautiful city in the world.” Oh! how I identified with this .... I'm a 'Praha Girl'!!!

But “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” first published in a French translation from Czech in 1984, is no love letter to the city ~ it is a message from a time of oppression, and one worth carrying for perspective on a trip through Prague. Milan Kundera submerges the reader in the undercurrents of political life, the rough passages of far-too-recent vintage and the personal repercussions of an invasive, claustrophobic time. Tereza is climbing Petrin in a dream ~ a dream in which she will be executed, but only if she convinces the executioners that she seeks death of her own free will. The novel returns again and again to Tereza’s harrowing dreams, simultaneously erotic and morbid. The driver told us he was taking us on a diversion and we looked at each other nervously for stories and warnings about unscrupulous taxis are legion in Prague. By the Vltava he stopped and asked us to get out and cross the road to see a plinth where a statue used to stand. He explained to us that this is where the Czechs had blown up a statue of Stalin years previously and how proud he now was to be able to welcome us to a free city. Only those who have lost their freedom once can really appreciate what it means to be free. I remembered my Mom & her childhood incarceration in the Nazi 'show' camp of Terezin (Theresienstadt) & her few free years in this city. As I reminisce I again
begin to appreciate some of the life rhythms of the characters of Kunedra's novel. 

Most films move so quickly and are so dependent on plot that they are about events, not lives. "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" carries the feeling of deep nostalgia, of a time no longer present, when these people did these things and hoped for happiness, and were caught up in events beyond their control. Kaufman achieves this effect almost without seeming to try. At first his film seems to be almost exclusively about sex, but then we notice in countless individual shots and camera decisions that he does not allow his camera to become a voyeur. There is a lot of nudity in the film but no porn. the camera does not linger, or move for the best view, or relish the spectacle of nudity. The result is some of the most poignant, almost sad, sex scenes I have ever seen ~ sensuous, yes, but bittersweet. Like Reality. The reality of Polygmy. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is successfully able to ponder the philosophical question ~ polygamy or monogamy? It also, despite numerous sex scenes and adulterous encounters, paints more poignantly than any other film the damage that Tomas' 'lightness of being' (polygamy) does to a person. Long after the movie is over this haunts you .....

The casting has a lot to do with this haunting quality. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Tomas with a sort of detachment that is supposed to come from the character's distaste for commitment. He has a lean, intellectual look, and is not disgusting lech. For him, sex seems like a form of physical meditation, rather than an activity with another person. Lena Olin, as Sabina, has a lush, voluptuous body, big-breasted and tactile, but she inhabits it so comfortably that the movie never seems to dwell on it or exploit it. It is a fact of nature. Juliette Binoche, as Tereza, is almost ethereal in her beauty and innocence, and her attempt to reconcile her love with her lover's detachment is probably the heart of the movie.
And what makes the movie special for me ..... Crushed by Tomas & his penchant for polygmy, Tereza attempts her own experiment with 'free love', but it does not work, because her heart is not built that way. She realizes people are not built that way. They love wholeheartedly or they don't!

It's a rich, ambitious film, repetitive and voyeuristic in its eroticism, but exhilarating in its blend of documentary and fictional recreation to depict the Soviet invasion. The narrative, now linear (unlike the book), is leisurely, the camerawork evocative; the progress from cynical irony to something more heartfelt rarely falters. Binoche and Olin avoid being reduced to symbols of Tomas' polarised soul, and Day Lewis is undoubtedly one of the most versatile actors of his generation. Whatever Milan Kundera's reservations this is an intelligent and charged adaptation and a fine cinematic outing. This is a movie for those few willing to accept the challenge of an intellectually stimulating film with a long running time, difficult philosophical questions, literary references, and political means and motives. If you can deal with that, which I know is a lot to ask, then please pick it up. Please enjoy this film. And, should you enjoy the film, please read the book. Neither will dissappoint.

"What was important was the golden footprint, the magic footprint she had left on his life and no one could ever remove." p. 120


  1. I just heard somebody whisper "It's Pana. It's not personal!" I chuckled. This is probably the most personal thing I've ever written .... for public consumption!!

  2. Polygamy is not about love but self indulgence. Sex can be just sex but when it is out of an act of love for the person you are with then it becomes "magical". Polygamy is just a man's or woman's quest for themselves and will usually leave scars and pain everywhere. To me there is no difference between a polygamist and someone who cheats...either way someone gets robbed.

  3. I dont think I would enjoy the movie with its central theme because of personal experience.....

  4. It is a magnificent movie. And Novel, although harder to read. It is uplifting & Suicidal all at once. Heart Rending, especially if you've had a partner who practiced Polygamy!!

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  6. put it on our list then...not watching it alone!

  7. Oh such a terrible subject. I have had alot of personal emotional experience with this subject. I am just not built that way... and I am glad to say my husband isn't either. Now, the one before him... :)

  8. I'm not built that way either, Julianna, .... the bittersweet taste of experience! It's a tough teacher!!

    In diving to the bottom of pleasure we bring up more gravel than pearls. ~ Honore de Balzac.